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Therapist's Self-Disclosure in Therapy: Striking the Delicate Balance

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Self-disclosure in psychotherapy refers to when a therapist shares personal information, stories, or experiences with clients. This skill has always fascinated me, from my early training days to my current role as a therapist in private practice. It's an aspect of psychotherapy that I consider crucial yet tricky and challenging. In my peer supervision or supervision sessions, I often find myself grappling with questions related to self-disclosure, and these inquiries consistently lead to deeper self-reflection and self-awareness.

The therapeutic relationship between a therapist and a client is strange and unique. It's both deeply intimate and strictly professional. There's an imbalance in sharing, with the client revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings while much about the therapist remains unknown. Furthermore, this relationship varies greatly depending on the therapist and each client. It's a dynamic shaped by the therapist's background, self-awareness, relational style, and therapeutic approach, as well as the client's understanding of therapy, stereotypes, biases, their previous relational experiences and current relational needs.

I recall my experience with my first therapist when I was still a master's student facing personal challenges. While my therapist offered valuable insights and reflective prompts, there was no self-disclosure from her. I never truly saw her “human”, I never heard her talk about her feelings or her challenges. I used to feel like something was missing, but I later realized what it was. It was the feeling of loneliness in the sessions. The feeling of being a little broken sitting in front of another who seems to have it all together. My own experience of sitting in the vulnerability of being a client in therapy deeply influenced my love for this skill, and my intention to appropriately practice sharing parts of myself and my world with my clients as much as the space, and relationship warrants.

I also reflect on self-disclosure because many clients express a desire to see me not just as a therapist but as a fellow human being. Upon discussion with one of my clients who was feeling distant to me, and I stuck as a therapist, I realized how I didn’t show her my human-ness a lot, unintentionally. When I asked her what she thinks I can change, “Remember during that one session you shared that about yourself while we were discussing my issue, maybe a little more of that”, she said. Another client of mine expressed his annoyance about how robotically I responded, “I am good” to his "How are you ?", when we met after a three-month break. Client feedback is important, and yet sometimes very challenging to incorporate especially when it is about your disclosure. I was still confused how I could honestly elaborate on how I have been without revealing too much of myself, without taking too much space, without losing the therapeutic focus.

Self-disclosure is a challenging aspect of therapy for several reasons. It feels like walking on eggshells, as we strive to be seen by our clients without overshadowing their needs, letting them know they are not alone in their human-ness, that they are not broken or lazy, whilst still managing to remain in your therapist self, a little closer to them and a little distant to be able to help them, to be able to provide “professional compassionate support” which is strange but necessary for the healing process to take place.

Here are a few reasons why therapists are cautious about self-disclosure:

1. Maintaining the Therapist Self: We feel responsible for maintaining the image of a therapist that clients look up to for support and hope. Clients seek our help during difficult times, and we're unsure how revealing our vulnerability might affect them during those sensitive times.

2. Respecting Client's Space:We don't want to take up too much of the client's session time with our personal sharing. The session is primarily for the client's needs, and we want to ensure it remains focused on them.

3. Professional Boundaries: Self-disclosure can blur the boundaries of the professional therapeutic relationship, potentially making the therapist seem more like a friend than a therapist.

4. Misalignment with Client Values: Sharing information that conflicts with a client's values or beliefs can jeopardize the therapeutic relationship. Driving them distant rather than being able to make the feel close.

Despite the risks, self-disclosure is an essential and beautiful aspect of psychotherapy. It plays a crucial role in building rapport between the therapist and the client. It bridges the gap and reassures clients that they can trust their therapist and that they are not alone in their experiences. Clients often come to therapy in a vulnerable state, and knowing that their therapist is human too can be comforting. It reinforces the idea that their struggles are a part of the human experience, and that their therapist is not any less of a human.

If you are or have been a client in therapy, did your therapist practice self-disclosure? If yes, how did it make you feel, how did it change your therapeutic relationship? If no, do you wish they did?

If you are a therapist, do you relate to my dilemma? How do you navigate these challenges?

I would love to know your thoughts in the comments.

I also urge you to take a moment to have an open conversation with someone in your life. Share a personal experience or feeling that you might not typically discuss. Pay attention to how this exchange deepens your connection and fosters understanding. Reflect on how practicing thoughtful self-disclosure can enhance your relationships and your ability to support one another.

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It's great to reflect on this point as I think too many therapists don't or are afraid to. Good psychotherapy isn't, can't be, simply a mechanical robotic process no matter how much capitalism might encourage mechanical roboticsm in all its varied forms. Good psychotherapy involves feeling safely 'seen' by another human. Which obviously implies that there must a feeling that there is a human 'see-er'. Many psychotherapists historically have been taught to 're-parent' a client. But that's quite hard boundary heavy words to use. Perhaps it's better lighter in every sense to think of a psychotherapist as a really good wise kind friend of the client? Friendship does have boundaries but they are warm and trusting boundaries which do involv…

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